Our youth justice expert Rob Moussalli wrote of his concerns in the May edition of the Manchester Law Society Messenger in which he warned that government cuts were impacting on various aspects of youth justice in terms of;
- Closure of secure units
- Lack of funding for support services such as court psychiatric nurses and the Bail Support Services
- Changes in the cautioning of young persons
He concluded that these changes have resulted in young people effectively becoming hardened offenders before actually appearing in Court and by then the damage has already been done, they will inevitably will receive custodial sentences and then be incarcerated and isolated at institutions far away from their homes.
“court closures not appropriate for access to justice”
Now a senior judge has hit out at government decisions to close courts. While speaking at the Westminster Policy Forum on youth justice reform, education, rehabilitation and the youth court held yesterday in London, Mr Justice William Davis judicial lead on youth justice in England and Wales said that the way that the closures had applied to Youth Courts were ‘not appropriate for access to justice’.
He gave an example of the Youth Court closure in Skegness which resulted in young offenders now having to travel to Lincoln and be subjected to a four hour return journey by public transport.
There was also criticism of the Ministry of Justice plans to use other buildings such as school or libraries to hear cases locally, but this wouldn’t be suitable for cases where was a possibility of custody as there would not be a secure dock or cell area. As Rob’s article make clear a significant number of those appearing at youth courts have already committed many offences been diverted through other alternatives to court such as referrals, restorative justice and police cautions. Those are just the types of individuals who are clearly at risk of receiving detention.
“inadequate forethought” in ministry of justice plans.
The plans have already been criticised in a report last year the House of Commons Justice Committee warned that ‘inadequate forethought’ had been given to the security implications of holding court sessions in buildings that are not equipped with a secure dock.
Is the Youth Justice System in Manchester broken?
The Youth Justice System which deals with many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people is failing in so many ways, in my opinion. A lack of funding is causing massive problems. Here are some current examples:-
Closure of secure units and children’s homes
Over the last few years a large number of custodial institutions/ secure units / secure children’s homes in the North West of England have been closed down. This
leaves us in the current parlous position of the only secure institution in the North West of England being Barton Moss which caters for under 15 year aids. The situation for Greater Manchester children remanded to custody therefore is that vulnerable 15 – 16 year aids go to the secure training centre at Rainsbrook some 130 miles away in the South East Midlands. Other 15 – 17 year olds go to Wetherby in North Yorkshire and sometimes further afield.
This makes it extremely difficult for family to visit at all and certainly not on a regular basis. This seems to be against all of the principles espoused by the Youth Justice Board that young people in custody should be housed as close to home as possible. Given that approximately 70% or more of the young people in custody have mental health and/ or learning issues, it is particularly cruel to leave
them without family support. There seems no possible rationale for this policy save for cost saving.
Lack of funding
There is a lack of funding for support services around the Youth Offending Service for Court. Two simple examples can be used to demonstrate this which reflect the change in policy in relation to Manchester & Salford Youth Court, and again these changes of policy are based solely on cost saving.
Psychiatric Nurse now only available for adult offenders
For many years there was a youth psychiatric nurse on duty for the Courts at Manchester who would attend to see young people (especially in the cells but also appearing on bail) with suspected mental health issues. There is of course an equivalent service for adults appearing at Court where they are seen by the CPNs (Community Psychiatric Nurses) – under the MODEL Scheme. The service for youths was withdrawn a few years ago to save funds. The Youth Offending Service maintained that they would be able to cover this provision once the psychiatric nurse had left but they in fact could not. They had assumed that their healthcare workers could cover this provision but their healthcare workers were not mental health trained. Where a young person appears in Manchester in the cells at Court and has psychiatric problems. There is now nobody who can see him or her and provide analysis or assistance. We are therefore in the crazy position where there is a service for adults but there is not for youths despite the prevalence of mental health issues in young people appearing before the Courts.
Withdrawal of the Bail Support Service
This was a service that was developed to assist young people on bail, especially those facing the more serious offences or those who were more regular offenders. It was a standalone service, not part of the Youth Offending Service and was separately funded. The Bail Support Officers (of which there were originally five at Manchester Youth Court) would conduct home visits, collect young people and take them to appointments and also be responsible for bringing young people to Court to answer their bail. In other words they provided a great deal of assistance to young people and did everything in their power to ensure that the young people complied with their bail conditions and attended court on the next date of hearing. This service is no longer separately funded. The responsibilities have been taken on by existing Youth Offending Service Officers. The result of this is that effectively none of the above support is now provided to young people who are on bail support. Effectively a bail support package now simply imposes extra obligations on young people such as having to attend extra appointments with the Youth Offending Service either at the local office or at the court office. No help is provided in terms of ferrying young people to appointments or police stations and no help is provided in terms of assisting with transport to court on days of court appearances. The imposition of a bail support package now makes it more likely that a young person will breach their bail and therefore be arrested and kept in custody (because a bail support package creates extra obligations for young people to breach). In the past the bail support package did not create extra obligations and provided valuable assistance in reminding young people of their commitments and physically assisting them in keeping those commitments.
The system of police cautioning has been changed
The process for young people for many years was simple, subject to seriousness, the basic structure was that for a first admitted offence was a reprimand, for a second admitted offence was a final warning and after that there was a charge and an appearance at court. The situation has been changed now so that the decision as to whether to caution is ultimately the responsibility of the police officer in the case. This can sometimes be left to even a Police Constable. This leads to wide variations with some young people cautioned or diverted for very serious matters such as robbery and burglary and some not diverted or cautioned for very minor matters such as section 5 public order.
Additionally, the system does not work. Lots of diversions are in place such as restorative justice and other out of court disposals. In theory this is a great idea to divert young people from the criminal justice system. However, as seems always the case in post depression Britain, the programmes are not properly funded. Effectively young people are let off without intervention frequently sometimes simply writing a letter of apology or saying sorry. I have dealt with several young people where looking at their antecedent history it appeared it was their first piece of offending and yet subsequently I found that they had been diverted on 10 – 15 occasions for offences as serious as burglary. This means that frequently the young people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation they are getting into, don’t understand the implications for them of offending and are genuinely surprised when they finally come before a court and discover that they are in serious trouble.
In my opinion this policy simply undermines the whole criminal justice system and the common thread in the above examples is a lack of funding throughout.
At the other extreme, new procedures have been brought in for political reasons. The Government were anxious to say they had scrapped antisocial behaviour orders (because this had at one time been a manifesto commitment) but once in power realised that it would be politically unacceptable to remove these without replacement. Instead they brought in an extremely complex and hastily drafted system of civil injunctions to dea! with antisocial behaviour by young people. The disposals in these cases are not properly structured with apparent disposals of “detention” and “supervision” provided for but not defined. Some of these injunctions contain wording not seen since the early days of antisocial behaviour orders, purporting to effectively make it arrestable and imprisonable for young people to “cause a nuisance or annoyance”. be in groups of two or more, and other unrealistic prohibitions.
Whilst the legislation dealing with these matters has been hastily and poorly drafted, the effect is to put young people in extremely difficult situations and make it highly
likely that they will be repeatedly arrested and eventually imprisoned for non-criminal behaviour.
Young people criminalised unnecessarily
Overall therefore the provision of support and services for young people has been much reduced, and a system has developed where young people often don’t appear in court until the damage has already been done and they are hardened offenders and then imprisonment follows. That imprisonment is in institutions far away and the young person is effectively isolated from their family and further damage is done.
At the same time as this is happening the civil injunction system that has been brought in risks effectively criminalising young people who have not carried out significant criminal offending and who could be worked with in a different way.
Youth Court Specialist
Burton Copeland LLP